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What I’ve Been Doing 14 May 2012 [FB/IB/F/BT/GO]
May 14th, 2012 by Dan

Tropico 4

I felt a little guilty being El Presidente. Photo courtesy SegmentNext)

Want people to get a taste of your game? Have a free weekend. I put in 11 hours and I probably would have bought the game if it wasn’t for Diablo 3 dropping tomorrow. Sorry, Tropico 4. Maybe next Steam sale.

Movies

Election – The prototype that all kinds of high school shows like Popular and Glee seems to crib off of. Not amazing or anything, but I thought Reese Witherspoon’s performance was just perfect. She really hit the right notes in Tracy’s obsessive need to win and I especially liked when she had that confrontation scene with Broderick about the teacher she was sleeping with.

TV

Mad Men – Mad Men is really killing it, man. Really great performances make for solid character work. The Megan/Don relationship continues to be intriguing, but who knows how much of it is left.

Girls – I loved the last couple of minutes of the show with the diary reading. Really hooked me in to want to see more.

Veep – Best line: “You’re not fucking Thor, mom?” Although the cutouts in the closet scene was a little on the nose. This show continues to improve every episode and I already loved it at the premiere!

The Voice – The cover of Joe Cocker’s cover of “With a Little Help from My Friends” made me want to go and listen to the original (the cover, that is) and I’m not only way more impressed with that version, I’m impressed with the restraint Cocker shows that the artists on the show don’t seem to have. You don’t have to turn every note into a power note, guys, but I see why you might want to on a singing show. Oh, also Christina Aguilera never wears pants and it’s weird/gross/hilarious.

New Girl – Rushed. Overdone. Why are Schmidt and Cece breaking up? Would have been “Most Improved” sitcom of the year if it had stuck the landing.

Fashion Police – Joan Rivers is really mean, but kind of funny. Still could do without watching this show.

Parks and Recreation – “Jerry forgot to vote.” “Dammit Jerry!” Not everything about the election storyline worked, but it was a solid season of good comedy. I hope they rally to S3 levels for S5.

Community – The second clip show goes and improves upon the first so much that I like it even more. Fantastically done.

Bob’s Burgers – Eh. Didn’t love it as much as the premiere. I think this show is good, but not great.

Music

Bold words from Lupe Fiasco. Pretty great stuff.

Books

Not really…

Video Games

The Old Republic – Finished Nar Shaddaa with my Trooper. This new droid companion is awesome. Super funny. I think Bioware has cornered the market on funny droid writing.

Tropico 4 – I like having a steady sim to sit down and chill out with. Don’t get me wrong, T4 is a second tier sim, but you could do worse in the time before the next Sim City game launches and now.

What I’ve Been Doing [F/FB/IB/BT/GO]
Jul 11th, 2011 by Dan

2010 Pine Leaf Boys scene from Treme, Breaux Bridge April 30 (23 of 34)

A performance from Tremé

Tomorrow night’s the All-Star Game, but my coverage might be a little different than usual. I plan on watching it with friends, so there may not be a liveblog, but I will cover it in the morning. In the meanwhile, here’s what I’ve been up to.

Music:

Rx Bandits – Saw the Bandits down at the 9:30 Club on Saturday for their farewell tour. I don’t think anything will match the unparalleled emotion I felt at Five Iron Frenzy’s “Winners Never Quit” tour back in 2003, but it was a special show. They’re not writing off being a studio band, but that may have been the last time I’ll ever see the Bandits and they did not disappoint. Great show. The tour t-shirt puts me up to 5 RxB t-shirts. I think I’ve reached excessive there.

Movies:

Carancho - Ricardo Darín’s strong showing in El secreto de sus ojos attracted me to this movie. In it, Darín plays a carancho (translates to vulture), or an ambulance chaser, who scams victims out of their settlements. The story is a little uneven, but it’s clear to me that Darín is ridiculously talented and I love seeing him in anything. Gotta track down more of his films.

TV:

Tremé – Finally got around to watching the season 2 finale. Good stuff. It’s neat to see the differences between Tremé and The Wire. David Simon is clearly not compelled to make this show more watchable by limiting the live music or giving it a more structured plot, but that’s ok sometimes. It’s nice to see the different storylines just play out because, hey, that’s life. Good to also see the Vietnamese shrimp boats as a preparation for an eventual Gulf Oil Spill storyline.

Dead Like Me – As a fan of Pushing Daisies, I was not surprised to learn that this was a Bryan Fuller show. The same little quirks were apparent in the early episodes and although he left the show rather early in its run, his DNA runs through it. I gotta wonder about Fuller’s preoccupation with death and women with masculine nicknames…Anyway, it’s a pretty solid show that my girlfriend is watching and I hop in for an episode or two wherever she is. The premise, that the main characters are grim reapers who collect souls that are about to die, is pretty neat and I dig the characters. I also like that it was a Showtime show, so the writers are free to let the characters talk like real people.

Mad Men – Last weekend I just blew through S3 and S4. This is a fantastic show. I do love it when a show finds itself continually evolving so it’s neat to see how far the characters have come since S1. It was a little troubling in the 4th season to see Don struggling, but I’m excited to see what S5 brings in 2012. This is seriously one of the best shows I’ve seen in ages. Very good.

Books:

Chew – New issue (#19) came out last week. Toni appears in this one and she’s rapidly grown on me as one of my favorite characters. The latest issue sets up a lot of neat plot points that I’m excited to see born out and also reveals some interesting secrets about the Chu family. Definitely the best so far in the new arc.

S.H.I.E.L.D. – My love affair with Jonathan Hickman’s work has not abated yet. His examination of the secret history of an organization that a lot of Marvel fans kind of take for granted is very interesting. Could have interesting implications for the greater Marvel universe, but it also ties in very nicely with Hickman’s work in FF. Gotta wonder if Hickman has some serious father issues, because it’s yet another book of his thematically dealing with fathers and sons, but this time with a fate vs. free will wrinkle.

Fantastic Four/FF – More Hickman, more awesomeness. I finally got around to reading Hickman’s run on Fantastic Four and I was seriously impressed. I mean, we’re talking a breadth of narrative that’s still bearing fruit in his current issues of FF. FF is one of my most anticipated books every month. I can’t wait to see what The War of the Four Cities will bring and whether or not the issues with the Council of Reeds (first introduced at the start of Hickman’s run back in 2009) will be resolved in this arc.

Ultimate Fantastic Four – Still cool, but man does it pale in comparison to the work being done on FF. Almost done with it, so I’ll continue for now.

Video Games:

Torchlight – Picked this guy up for $2 or so in the Steam summer sale. and it was well worth the purchasing price. Definitely scratching my Diablo itch with some seriously addictive game mechanics. Playing as the pet class and loving all the summons, but on Very Hard the final dungeons are proving challenging. I’m afraid to try it hardcore next, but the challenge is calling me (for those who don’t know, hardcore mode means that death is permanent for a character. THE ULTIMATE CHALLENGE!)

Left 4 Dead – David finally built himself a new computer allowing him to play all the sweet games of the past that we couldn’t play before. We played No Mercy last night and it was a real blast from the past. I can’t wait for him to see the ways the game has evolved in L4D2! I’m sure he’ll find it just as awesome as I do.

inFamous – Beat it on very hard on the good track. Considering an evil run for trophies, but, truth be told, this game is middling, at best, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to motivate myself to play it again with more interesting options on hand.

StarCraft 2 – Played a couple of quick rounds with Dave and one of his friends. Still solid, but I’m not always in the mood.

Mass Effect 2 Impressions [Game Overview]
Jan 28th, 2010 by Dan

A little known series called Mass Effect just released its second iteration on the series this Tuesday. Since none of the major outlets seem to be covering it, I figured I’d give some impressions. Note that the screenshots were taken in windowed mode because my stupid computer didn’t want to actually capture images in fullscreen. Thanks computer!

I'm like a king overlooking his people

The bridge and CIC haven't changed too much, just got a new paint job...

So far the game is great. I’m loving all the dialog and the way that the shooting mechanics and powers all intermingle. It’s kind of a bummer that killing dudes doesn’t give me XP (only completing missions does), but I have a sneaking suspicion that it has to do with the way they balanced the game.

Since there’s an achievement for beating the game on Insanity (it’s actually insane that I care since I’ve got the PC version and that doesn’t even report achievements to anyone!), I decided to start my first playthrough on the highest difficulty level. It was cool that I didn’t have to beat the game once to unlock it in an effort to artificially extend my time with the game. Thanks for that Bioware!

Unfortunately, I seem to have made a LOT more work for myself by choosing to do this. Like Mass Effect, the chief way in which Insanity differs from easier difficulty levels is all in the enemy shields. There are three shield types in ME2, armor, barriers, and (bog-standard) shields representing the three main class types in the game, soldiers, biotics (adepts), and engineers. When an enemy has one of these shields up, it is invulnerable to certain powers. For example, an enemy with a barrier up cannot be thrown, pulled, or effectively singularitied. Instead I’ve got to use warp to lower its shields and allow myself to really use the fun stuff. Armor can be melted off with fire and shields can be overloaded by engineering-types. On easier difficulty levels, only the hardcore enemies have shields of any kind. On Insanity, every enemy has at least one shield type, mini-bosses have two, and bosses have two to three. It’s almost a grind, but it’s also fun to have to use powers and specific weapon types in concert to try and whittle down these barriers to the really fun stuff.

I also have a sneaking suspicion that there are more enemies in waves on Insanity, which is why they just went and got rid of kill XP instead of giving them even more shields (the Mass Effect 1 solution). The glut of enemies has proven lethal plenty of times as most major battles play out the same way for me the first time.

1. Walk into a room
2. Don’t take cover fast enough, lose my shields quick
3. Shotgun guy comes around the corner and kills me
4. Get into cover faster
5. Advance too fast, get flanked, get dead
6. Restart, clear the first wave, advance to fast, get killed
7. Repeat until I manage to not get blown up by the giant robot that they unleash upon me as the last part of the battle because dying means I have to START OVER

It’s tough, but it’s also a lot of fun and it’s at least taught me how to play the game better.

Even more fun is my crew. So far my crew is composed of the two I started with, Miranda and Jacob, one DLC recruit, Zaeed, and three actual recruits, Jack, Dr. Mordin, and Archangel (using the in-game nickname for him to avoid identity spoilers). Of these, the only real disappointment is Zaeed. Unlike Shale in Dragon Age, there was next to no effort put into his characterization. You can’t enter into dialog trees with him and his loyalty quest is unlocked from the get-go. He’s powerful, but boring.

The other crewmen are way more interesting and the backstories I’ve unlocked so far seem to be hinting at some interesting missions coming in the future. It seems like they interact with each other less than in ME and far less than Dragon Age, which is a bummer, but maybe I just need to put more time in.

One other oddity is that when they realized that they were hiring Yvonne Strahovski to play Miranda, they decided to make her character model look like her. It definitely looks like her, but it might be a little too far into the uncanny valley land, because it sometimes wigs me out.

Backtalk

I don't normally allow such disrespect aboard my ship, but for Yvonne Strah-I mean Miranda Lawson, I'm sure we can bend the rules a little.

The character modelers did a fantastic job capturing Strahovski’s face (see reference below), but it can also be jarring when you look at her realistic features and then talk to an alien or another human whose face is not quite so clearly modeled after a real person.

Yvonne Strahovski

For reference, this is Yvonne Strahovski

Another interesting character design choice is the ship’s computer, EDI. Now it may be saying more about me than the designers when I say this, but there’s something seriously wrong, in a Freudian sense, about the way that they chose to animate and represent EDI…

EDI

Tricia Helfer always seems to wind up playing AI-characters

Especially when she’s in a restrictive or angry mode and they change her color scheme to represent that. Hey, maybe it’s just me being juvenile, but it’s distracting.

Mad EDI

I'm just sayin', man...maybe you should see someone about these character designs.

Another small gripe has to do with the planet scanning mechanic in this game. Believe me, I’d much rather scan planets than drive the Mako around, but my gripe has more to do with the way that the planetary side missions are found. Instead of giving me a tutorial on how to find those missions, I get all sorts of on-screen instructions about how to find minerals and resources.

Scanning a planet

Way to put on-screen tutorial information for the half of this that is entirely intuitive...

That part is obvious. Having to figure out how to find an anomaly mission should not be so hard. EA and Bioware either need to start offering a manual online with Steam games (I couldn’t find one) or offer better resources for learning how to play the game. It’s pretty insane that I had to use Google to figure out how to find my side missions.

In case you’re wondering how, a white line will appear in the radar indicating which direction you should move to find the anomaly. When you’re close, a white dot will appear on the planet. Fire a probe and voila!

If it seems like I’m being nitpicky, it’s indicative of how much I enjoy the game and how it’s only the little things that bug me. I’m having tons of fun using singularity to create mini-black holes and then using warp with Miranda to pound my captured enemies and decimate their HP and setting them on fire with Dr. Mordin to finish them off. The game leaves me wanting to sink more hours in each day I play it and already has me excited for my renegade playthrough. Look for more impressions as they come.

Amicitia sans oris [Mr. Digital]
Jan 7th, 2010 by Dan

Last month I found myself worrying about a friend of mine who was going through a tough time. Kim had just lost a friend and was headed to Louisiana for the funeral, so I wouldn’t be hearing from her for a week. I told her I was sorry and that I was there for her and then she left. Funny thing is, I’ve never met Kim. I only know her because I love to play Left 4 Dead. I’ve never even seen a picture of what she looks like and I’m only 98% sure that Kim is even her name. With all those layers of abstraction, you’d think it would be difficult for me to call her a friend, but I’ve come to realize that there can be value in the tenuous, ephemeral online friendship, so long as it doesn’t replace the ones you have in your physical life.

The first friend I ever had who I never met was back when I was about twelve. My family had moved back to Florida a year prior and I had finally overcome the intense social barriers of being the new kid and starting a new level of school at the same time. The circle of friends I had developed was, oddly enough, composed almost entirely of people who used to torment me at every turn the year prior. One of those friends, Josh, had an elementary school friend who had moved away to Connecticut right before middle school started. I don’t remember the circumstances behind it, but I somehow because friends with Abbe (that was her name) through an e-mail chain and eventually started chatting with her on a regular basis.

It wasn’t the great friendship that defined my life and I don’t think I’ve talked with her since I was 14, but for someone who I’d never actually met in the flesh, we had a pretty decent friendship. She and a friend called my house and we talked on the phone once or twice (she told me once my voice was sexy (for a 13-year-old)), but beyond that most of our conversations took place over AOL Instant Messenger. I don’t remember much about what we talked about, aside from a particularly strange health teacher she had, but I do know that she was an interesting friend in my life who I’m surprised I’ve never forgotten, considering I have no idea what she looks like anymore (I saw a picture once).

I don’t think I made any strictly online friends again until I was 20 during my junior year at Cornell. At the encouragement of my friend Chris, I started playing World of Warcraft again (I had quit the year before the first time Ashley broke up with me) on his server with the intention of hanging out with him and his roommate in-game. My character, Torvalds (named after the Master of Penguins himself), was able to power level up to level 60 during my fall semester and start attempting to join guilds not long after. I eventually managed to make my way into my guild of choice, Revelation (which, sadly, no longer exists on Cenarion Circle), and started working working on the last bit of endgame content before the expansion pack, slowly building up a group of friends on the way.

After winter break, the expansion pack came out and, as one of the junior warlocks in the guild, I was assigned to the B team, which also happened to be the West Coast team. Thanks to my luck, this meant that I was raiding Karazhan twice a week starting at 2300 and going to 0300 the next morning on days when I had an 0800 class. Needless to say, I missed a lot of class that semester (and my grades suffered from it), but the crummy conditions and B-Team status combined to form a strong sense of camaraderie. We used to get yelled at for not completing the dungeon fast enough, but that’s probably because most of our nights were filled with laughter and jokes instead of serious boss planning as we cleared our way up to our weekly boss wall.

Whenever I think about going back to WoW, it’s because of these guys: Moonsbreath, a school nurse from California by day and a Tauren Resto Shaman by night, Samuwen, our Orc Hunter team leader and a copy store employee by day, and Emil, our Undead Warrior tank whose profession I did not know, but whose infant child often made nightly cameos during our raids. On nights when we were mixed in with the entire guild, you could bet that we’d still be joking around with each other either over Ventrilo (we were easily the most talkative bunch outside of the guild leader) or through the in-game whisper system. The night that our guild leader, Athen, disbanded the guild to leave WoW was a devastating blow to everyone. We all tried to hold it together for a few nights, but the loss of direction caused our merry band to disperse to the winds. More than one of us quit the game, myself included, which spelled the end for our friendships since none of us knew each other in real life.

When thinking about these virtual friendships, it becomes clear that the worst part about them are their delicate, ephemeral nature. Their very existence often relies on the medium within which they are created. Just like that, our guild disbanded and I lost three cool in-game friends. When I returned to WoW for a month or two last year, some of these guys were still around, but the construct which formed our relationship was gone and it just wasn’t the same.

When I met Kim I thought it was actually going to be kind of different. My roommate, Darek, and I liked to play Left 4 Dead online with an old friend of his from university named Eric. One day Eric invited Darek and I to join a game that Kim was in. Her general friendliness with Eric and Darek, both of whom seemed to know Kim, made me assume that she was also a former classmate. Since she was associated with real people I knew, that made her a more “real” friend than the other ones I had made online. I later found out (nearly a year later) that Kim randomly met Eric playing a different zombie video game and that they’d been playing together since.

I wouldn’t say that Kim and I were best friends or anything, but we’ve got enough of a rapport that people who play with us for the first time assume that we actually know each other in real life. We both know what the other does for a living, but beyond that, I’d say that the only two things we know about each other are our personalities and how good we are at Left 4 Dead.

Thanks to the more robust communication tools available through Steam, I don’t worry so much about losing touch with Kim if I were to stop playing Left 4 Dead, but it does worry me that, should she decide to quit games forever, I’d probably never talk to Kim again. That’s where the other boundary with online friends rears its ugly head again. I don’t even know her name, so I couldn’t just friend her on Facebook. If I were to visit Texas (where she lives) would it be normal to hang out with her?

It’s clear that the world of online, anonymous communication can be socially interesting and rewarding, but it’s also full of strange perils and confusing social conventions that seem like they could be just as paralyzingly complex to the socially inept. The lack of real life contact is perhaps the most pressing issue with online friendships. Sure, I can hear the voices of all my friends thanks to fast, cheap VoIP, but with no real way of contacting each other, we could, I dunno, die, and no one would be the wiser. We’d just assume that the other person left our online space for greener pastures.

That’s no way to have real, lasting relationships, in my book, but as the relationships with my former classmates become increasingly digital due to distance, it’s becoming clear to me that many of my relationships are facilitated primarily through 1’s and 0’s, not any kind of human contact. It’s mostly thanks to her job that I find myself seeing Kai so often, but 75% of our interaction comes from blogs, tumblr, and twitter. Some of my other friends, like Lee, Yin, and Duffy, I see far less often and talk to only through gchat. I’m kind of losing my way here with respect to any point I might have, but suffice it to say that I’m infinitely glad that technology has allowed me to make and keep all of these friendships.

Back to Business for a Bit [Game Overview]
Aug 28th, 2009 by Dan

Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.

I was originally just going to post another video and not write anything, but then I realized that there was Left 4 Dead 2 news this week and I couldn’t let another week go by without mentioning the game (did you know I’m excited about its release?).

Obvious, but nice to hear…

When releases are imminent, people get impatient and want to know what’s coming next. When asked about Harmonix’s plans for next year, the question revolved around whether it would be another iteration in the Rock Band series or another band-style game like The Beatles: Rock Band. In typical PR fashion, Harmonix reps said that both were in the works and both might see the light of day next year. Way to be specific guys! You mean you’re working on another project that would capitalize on the success of your previous projects? Where do they get some of these questions?

I answer my own question with the excitement I feel in hearing about new games in the franchise.

I’m like Tiresias!

Ok, so I didn’t really predict these things and I heard them from the rumor mill, but I was right about all the WoW rumors I reported on last week. Go me!

Starcraft II News Bundle

Blizzcon was last weekend and, naturally, we have a lot of Starcraft II news to report on (we also have plenty of Diablo III and WoW stuff to say, but I don’t really care about those games, so…). The biggest news, for me, involved the new Battle.Net and the innovations behind creating one of the most interesting backends for games since Steam.

Rather like Steam, the goal of the new Battle.Net is to integrate Blizzard’s multiple properties and keep players connected. An instant messaging client will be a part of this new service and it will allow you to see what people on your friends list are doing in other Blizzard games, including World of Warcraft, allowing you to chat from within the game with people playing Starcraft or Diablo. The WoW achievements are also due for a slight upgrade to sync with the more general Blizzard achievement system that’s being created so that every character doesn’t have to go out and earn achievements on its own.

Another interesting innovation has to come from Activision. The aforementioned monetization of the service will make its debut as a Custom Maps marketplace. No more will players play free mods like Defense of the Ancients and love them. Now they’ll be forced to buy certain custom maps to enjoy their non-core gameplay.

In non-B.Net-related news, it was announced that the new voice for Sarah Kerrigan will be Tricia Helfer, whose last work was the little known project Battlestar Galactica. The former Cylon will be taking up the mantle of Queen of Blades for the foreseeable future, which is pretty awesome. She’s really got the commanding, scary voice down when she was Six on BSG.

Last, but not least, Blizzard has announced that Starcraft II can be played offline. Not the multiplayer, mind you, which requires an internet connection, even if played locally, but the single-player. You’ll be able to opt out of logging in, but you’ll lose out on all of the B.Net goodies. Your choice.

Did you really expect anything different?

Wii Sports Resort has crossed the million sales mark in Japan…and America…and Europe. It’s only been a few weeks, but man, that’s incredible. Way to go Nintendo!

Shepard?

If you love Mass Effect as much as I do, then you’re probably super excited to see the latest DLC, called Pinnacle Station, added to the game.

In what will probably be the last DLC pack for the series, you can now head to a space station and battle against the clock to set records, etc. and earn achievement points. Combat is nice, but it’s not really the focus of Mass Effect, is it?

Glad to see more content added to the universe! Can’t wait for ME2.

Another ban story

Out in Venezuela they don’t like objectionable content hitting the eyes of their children. Despite the violent and damn near despotic and tyrannical things that come out of the mouth of Hugo Chavez, the government is concerned with the sale of toy weapons and violent video games.

Should this ban pass, Venezuelans would have no access to toy weapons, which can be used to fake robberies, etc., nor would their people be subject to the corrupting forces of video games. Way to go guys, you’re really focusing on what matters.

You asked for it! Well, I did…

And here’s your weekly L4D2 news! Valve will make playable the creepy fair level, now called Dark Carnival, at PAX next week! Yeah, I wrote the previous 800 words just to talk about a playable level. What can I say? I love L4D2!

If that’s not enough, you can check out some sweet concept art at Kotaku.

Let’s close with another recent obsession of mine, The Beatles: Rock Band!

Meet the Spy [GO]
May 19th, 2009 by Dan

Ok, ok, so it’s not Monday and I’m going to post an embedded video. Relax, breathe deep, it’s ok.

Meet the Spy

Achievement Whores BEWARE: Giant Bomb [Game Overview]
May 15th, 2009 by Dan

Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.

If you’ve never actually visited Giant Bomb then you probably don’t know that it’s the greatest user-populated video game database on the internet and a pretty darn cool concept. The gist is this: you get all the editorial content that you’d expect from a video games site, only now you get to also create a super-detailed wiki, of sorts, where you can associate games with abstract concepts like “Full Body Awareness” in Left 4 Dead, meaning that when you look down (you’re already in the first person perspective) you don’t just see floor, you see your feet, or objects like crates or, well, you get the idea.

That’s all pretty great on top of the personalities on the site with their hilarious sense of humor and features like This Ain’t No Game, which reviews video game movies, and the aforementioned Persona 4 Endurance Run, but now they’ve gone and done something big.

Users can associate their gamertags and WoW accounts with their Giant Bomb accounts to attach their achievement status to their profile. This creates a site-wide database of achievements that is compared against itself, ranking achievements in terms of rarity and grading each user on a per-game basis for their achievements. Rarer achievements give more points, but if you still are underperforming, guess what, you’ll get a D or :gasp: an F in Halo 3. Max out achievements and get an S-rank that is not able to drop based on the user curve, unless more achievements come out for the game.

Right now they can’t handle PSN trophies thanks to Sony’s lack of a released API, but they will soon be adding Steam capability. I can’t wait until my page updates!

L4D Survival Mode [Game Overview]
Apr 24th, 2009 by Dan

Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.

The Left 4 Dead survival mode has finally hit the tubes and I think there’s really only one adjective that can accurately describe it: hard.

The video I posted below comes from Giant Bomb‘s Brad Shoemaker playing it on the 360, but let me tell you, the unprepared will fare no better, even on a PC.

It’s still tons of fun, it’s just also very hard. My best time with my roommate still barely reaches 6:44 or so.

I’ve yet to try out the new maps in Versus mode, but I imagine they’ll provide a helpful respite from the overplayed first two maps.

The inclusion of the new map Last Stand also leaves me optimistic for new campaigns in L4D. We all know that Valve is working on them, it’s just a matter of finishing their extensive testing. It seems to me that there would be no reason to work on that lighthouse level if it wasn’t part of a greater mission. Imagine how sweet it would be if you had an oceanside level where zombies could come out at you from the water. After reading World War Z, I think that would be just about the freakiest thing that could possibly happen.

Game Overview: Current Gen All-Stars
Jun 27th, 2008 by Dan

Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.

Due to some poor life decisions, I find myself stranded for five weeks without any video games. What’s a guy to do, right? Well, rather than just giving you some of the headlines from the week’s video game news in lieu of what I was planning to be gameplay impressions, reviews, and the like, I’ve instead started a five week “All-Stars” feature. Each week we’re going to look at a video game era and spotlight my top three games from that era. Each of these games will also receive a place setting at the prestigious “Table of Honor” feature that I’m working on. Here’s the weekly plan:

Week 1: 8-bit Console Era
Week 2: 16-bit Console Era
Week 3: Post-16-bit Console Era, Pre-Current Generation
Week 4: Pre-Current Generation PC Games
Week 5: Current Generation

Yeah, the categories are broad, particularly weeks three and four, but it’s how I want to do them, so get off my back!

Wow, we’ve finally made it to the last week of my all-stars feature! Beginning back in November of 2005 with the launch of the Xbox 360, this generation has seen some of the biggest shifts and changes that the industry has ever seen. Again, starting with the 360, consoles finally began to be a match for the PC market with online matchmaking services rivaling the best on the PC drawing gamers to the consoles in droves, depleting the once very robust leader in innovation and technology’s user base. Not a group to sit on its haunches, Valve re-invigorated the PC market with its Steam platform, a release and matchmaking mechanism that has recently started to rival Xbox Live in terms of functionality.

The PS3 launched about a year after the 360, promising much, but struggling to deliver any worthwhile software for a full year after launch. Its online service also leaves much to be desired, with no cross-game integration to help it out, it pales in comparison to XBL, even though it is free.

The greatest shift in gaming has come from the revolutionary Nintendo Wii and the Big N’s “Blue Ocean” strategy. Nintendo, understandably weary of being in last place for the last two generations, decided to take their console in a totally different direction, emphasizing the casual through an accessible control mechanism, affordable system, and lighter gameplay fare. While their strategy has succeeded, selling out systems each and every month and given them a greater install base than the Xbox 360, even with a full year’s delay in launch dates, many a “hardcore” gamer feels like Nintendo has forgotten about them with their new strategy.

The brilliance of this strategy has caused many a developer shift as both Microsoft and Sony attempt to develop motion sensitive controls to mimic the Wii and the huge blockbuster game releases of last gen start to tone down some of their production values in favor of appealing to the mass market. Minigame compilations flood the market as countless companies try to tap into the previously unreachable markets. Most find failure as Nintendo continues to milk dollars out of the Nintendo DS and Wii, causing concern for third party developers on both systems.

While the music gaming phenomenon technically began last generation, both Harmonix and Activision have enjoyed unprecedented success with their Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises. It seems that music gaming is one of the next big things, with Activision basically saturating the market with GH products and Harmonix releasing track packs every week to expand the already robust playlist of the party-friendly Rock Band.

Yes, the new generation has advanced gaming by leaps and bounds, with the 2007 holiday season being one of the best gaming history has seen in a long time, but the new generation has also drawn new lines; created new schisms. All of a sudden the terms “hardcore” and “casual” have divided a once unified user base. Nintendo’s radical decision to eschew high definition graphics in exchange for cost-effectiveness has split third party developers who now have to choose to develop for the HD systems or the system with the highest rate of ownership, but smallest attach rate (average number of games owned). Many claim that this will be a long one, unlike last generation, since Nintendo has proven that low-tech can still bring innovation and sales. All I know is that it’s still early and it’s still anyone’s ball game. The slow start of the PS3 is turning out to have been a slow boil while the 360 is looking like a flash in the pan as it peters out. Nintendo’s massive onslaught of sales still hasn’t even shown signs of slowing down, baffling everyone who said it was just a fad. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out when the dust settles, but until then, I’ve been enjoying some great games. Let’s take a look:

This first game revolutionized the gaming world last year by proving that a cohesive, well-thought out, well-written, but incredibly short game can top a robust 20 hour experience simply through the power of brilliant game-design, hilarious dialog, and a little bit of cake. Yeah, it’s Portal.

#3 Portal

Many of you know the story of how Portal came to be developed at Valve, but for those of you who don’t, here goes:

Up in Washington there exists a game design school called DigiPen. Since Valve is a Washington-based company as well, they tend to send people to check out the work done by students to find potential new hires and ideas. Cue Narbacular Drop, a project by students that featured the portal jumping gameplay we know and love in Portal. The story goes that someone from Valve saw the brilliant idea, brought them over to Valve headquarters to show Gabe Newell, and Newell hired them all on the spot, which was a brilliant move on his part.

Portal is a shining beacon of game design because it does everything that it sets out to do perfectly. It’s just the right length, has just the right amount of humor, has just the right difficulty curve, etc. Valve takes forever to produce games, we all know this, but Portal proves that our patience is definitely worth something.

There’s not really much else to say about this brilliant game, it has to truly be experienced to be understood as the masterpiece that it really is. Go out and buy it, seriously…it’s only like $20 on Steam

Here’s the ending credits, complete with the super-famous “Still Alive.” DO NOT WATCH IF YOU HAVEN’T BEATEN THE GAME!

International “Still Alive”!:

My #2 game would actually make a better Indiana Jones movie than the abysmally stupid Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It currently tops my most anxiously awaited sequel list based on the promise of another adventure with its hilarious and cool protagonist. Last clue: the PS3-exclusive company that produces these games seems to have an affinity for main characters sharing the same name that starts with ‘N’. These obscure hints may lead you to realize that I’m talking about Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune.

#2 Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

I bet you didn’t realize that the best action movie of 2007 was actually a video game. Uncharted follows Nathan Drake, supposed descendant of Sir Francis Drake, as he searches for the hidden treasure of El Dorado throughout the South Pacific. Joined by his partner Sully and the requisite sassy reporter Elena (yet another example of a restrained female character design that is STILL cool despite not having huge knockers. Take that sophomoric game designers!) Drake faces off against a plethora of pirates and puzzles as he discovers the dastardly secret of Drake’s fortune.

It sounds pulp-y, but that’s the point. Uncharted is the first time I’ve ever played a video game and thought “Well, this could actually be a movie without very much changing about it at all.” Play it and you’ll get the same impression. Voice acting is superb, the story is pretty cool, there is very real chemistry between characters, and the game just looks beautiful. Along with MGS4, this is one to show off your HDTVs to your friends. (Quick MGS note: I haven’t beaten MGS4, so it’s not eligible for this list).

Gameplay is pretty simple and mostly revolves around third-person shooting coupled with a cover system a la Gears of War. This part does get a little old sometimes as enemies continue to spawn at some points, but it’s well-done enough to not be too tiring. There’s also some platforming tossed in as you explore ruins that feels very satisfying. In fact, a great deal about what makes Drake such a cool protagonist stems from the fluidity of his movements both in combat and exploration. The way that he jumps from ledge to ledge, stumbling as he lands gives you that all important “Yeah, I think I could do that” feeling that makes up a successful everyman protagonist.

If you’ve never even seen Uncharted before, go rent it or buy it or come over my house. I’ll let you try it out.

E3 2007 Trailer;

Gametrailers Review:

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, my #1 game of the current generation. My choice may surprise you, but I think that at the end of the day, it has to be number one based on how much time I’ve put into it compared to any other game in my entire library. There’s no good way to hint at it, so I’ll come out and say that my top game of this current generation (so far) is Rock Band.

#1 Rock Band

Rock Band and I had a strangely hostile relationship when I first learned of it. Not being as well-versed in video game news as I am nowadays, back then I had no idea that the original developers of Guitar Hero II were behind RB, I just saw that someone else was trying to make a music game and that it was really, really expensive. As a fake-guitar player, I also didn’t quite see the allure of drums or vocals.

That all changed when I started to see footage of both games and learn about the pedigree of both series. Concerns began to crop up in my mind as GH3 coverage showed the game design to be stagnant, note charts a bit asinine and arbitrarily hard, and art style to be ridiculously ugly. This was also about the same time that I learned of the very ugly breakup between Harmonix and Red Octane and EA/MTV’s partnership with Harmonix. There was an immediate shift at that point where I realized that I was siding with the wrong company and antiquated game design. The music game future lied with Rock Band, its new digital distribution system, and four instruments.

As a quick aside, I actually actively hate Activision and the GH franchise over stupid stunts like this one. There’s no reason why they should have screwed over PS3 GH3 owners who just wanted to be able to use the same guitar peripherals over both games. No one needs as many plastic instruments as Activision is going to force upon us very soon…

Back to Rock Band: it’s yet another one of those casual games meant to open up the market. How does it do this? There’s the simple four-player multiplayer aspect that makes the most sense in this context. Gathering up four friends to play music on fake instruments has turned out to be a tremendously appealing concept. I can honestly only think of one or two of my friends who doesn’t enjoy Rock Band at all. Friends of mine who live thousands of miles away are excited to get some Rock Band in next month when they come to visit. It has that much draw, especially to people who typically don’t game at all, including older gamers (NOT my parents) and women. While being able to shred on expert isn’t about to impress any of the ladyfolk, it’s still a good game to bridge the gap between the gamer and game-hater, since most people who have never played video games can understand music within a few minutes.

The other real innovation in casual gaming is that Rock Band is not as ridiculously hard as Guitar Hero 3. Activision went the totally opposite direction, attempting to create a hardcore experience with note charts that made no sense, but were harder to play. Rock Band’s more intuitive note charts seem way easier by comparison, but they still provide tons of fun and, most importantly, they generally won’t fail an appropriately skilled player during multiplayer play, the main draw of the game. Yeah, Rock Band is a lot less fun solo than with friends (still way fun though), but it’s meant to be played with friends, not alone. I’ve spent countless hours with large groups of friends handing off the guitars, drum sticks, or microphone as we shredded the night away (and probably made our dormmates hate us…bwahaha).

Rock Band is, by and large, the only reason I turn on my Xbox anymore and it gets playtime at least once a week from me as they launch new tracks each and every week. As it introduces me to new, sweet music (Boston being my favorite discovery so far), it’s impossible for me to not rate this as the best thing to happen for me since I started gaming. I’ve always loved music and had some aptitude for it, but never really learned to play anything. RB gives me the freedom to love that music using a medium that is friendlier than actually picking up a guitar (although I do aspire to actually start playing at some point in the near future). Detractors will say, “Why don’t you just play real music?” I will say, “Because I love music, but don’t have the time or money to devote to learning a real instrument right now. Besides, this is fun for me and my friends, so stop being a jerk.”

At the end of the day, isn’t that what really matters with a video game? Aren’t we just supposed to be having fun?

“Margaritaville” Guitar and Drums:

“Rock and Roll Band” (one of my favorites!)

Another funny Rock Band-related PA comic.

And with that, I officially close out the Game Overview All-Stars feature on this blog. I’m sure you readers have pretty different opinions from me, so feel free to let me know what you think. I’m not planning on doing any runner-ups for this generation, but keep an eye out for game reviews in the future receiving the prestigious all-star award.

Remember guys, video games are all about fun. I spend a lot of time gaming, so it’s good to know that there are such fine specimens of gaming to make deep, lasting impressions on me. Keep it up game devs and I’ll keep picking up that controller.

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